As documents become more personalized, containing variable text blocks, graphics, offers, and individual recipient data, the risk of creating documents with errors increases. Mailers may have relied on visual document inspection as an adequate quality control method in the past, but those techniques may no longer guarantee the level of quality your customers demand. It may be time to look into automated quality assurance (QA) solutions designed for document output facilities.

Just think about all the processes included in a typical document production workflow:

  • Data collection
  • Data manipulation or reformatting
  • Print stream transformations
  • Postal optimization
  • Document composition
  • Post-composition document re-engineering

Any of these actions could cause errors to appear in your company’s documents.

Events such as software upgrades, mergers and acquisitions, or data migrations are common. These efforts are also potential sources for errors that manifest themselves in customer-facing documents.

Automated QA solutions come in two main varieties. Your organization may choose one or the other depending on the applications you run and your appetite for risk. Many times it may be prudent to carry out both kinds of QA processes.

Print Stream Comparison Tools

Print stream comparison tools match an approved baseline print file to the production files. The software will note any discrepancies it finds. Many of these tools display matching documents side by side on a screen. They highlight or color-code detected differences for easy recognition. These tools mimic the old manual QA process where print operations would produce matching documents from the control file and the production file. Print operations delivered two sets of output to employees for manual examination. QA software relieves staff members from tedious sight-checking, catches mistakes humans might overlook, and completes the task much quicker than the manual method.

Print stream comparisons are great tools when you’ve upgraded or switched your document composition software. Comparing print streams generated from the old and new software will alert you of any unexpected differences. You might also use print stream comparison tools when you’ve made changes that affect parts of the documents such as logo updates, to make sure the balance of the documents remain unaffected.

Print stream comparison tools should probably be part of everyone’s QA process.

You may need to add functionality that allows you to be more specific about document details. For this, you’ll need a tool with more flexibility.

Use Case QA Tools

Use case QA tools rely on tests defined for each document application to determine whether data displayed on the documents is within the guidelines established for each variable. You could, for instance, test a dollar amount or a date to see if it is within a certain range. You might check to confirm part numbers printed on detail lines include the required number of digits, or make sure the name printed at the bottom of a letter belongs to a current company employee. Another test might compare variable marketing messages to make sure they apply to the customer receiving the document.

It takes more time to implement use case QA tools compared to print stream comparison utilities. You must know what areas to test and understand the parameters and limits associated with each test area. This software can catch errors print stream comparison software might not notice when evaluating highly variable documents like bills or statements.

Use case tools will probably require training. Many organizations enlist professional services from the software vendor to set up their first applications.

Which Is Right for You?

Your company should weigh the cost of QA software against the impact of a document mistake. Consider the effect on your company (or your customer’s company if you are a print/mail service provider) if manual quality controls let mistakes pass.

Will you have to rerun and remail documents? Might you lose a customer – or multiple customers? Would you incur fines for unacceptable accuracy or missed SLAs? Answers to these questions will help you decide if an automated QA solution is the right thing for your print and mail operation.

Don’t be lulled into complacency because your manual methods have always protected you. Many incidents could weaken the effectiveness of your current QA operation, including employee changes, increases in volume, or accelerated deadlines. The documents you print will become more variable. That factor on its own can make manual QA almost impossible to achieve.

As print and mail operations strive to produce the personalized and highly targeted communications businesses need to meet the needs of their customers, document quality becomes increasingly important. Talk to your software vendors, investigate QA tools, and evaluate your risk. It may be time to add this functionality to your workflow.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services at Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.